Folk art and folk artists tend to be an underserved discipline in the contemporary American art world. We gravitate towards fine artists with prestigious arts degrees over the more commonplace culture of folk art, and when we do discuss the importance of art born out of folk tradition, as in most artistic disciplines, we tend to highlight white artists. From the music of Bob Dylan to the exultation of Grandma Moses, when we talk about folk art as something born out of Americana or something inherently American, we very rarely talk about Black artists. Yet folk art is historically important as an archive of culture encapsulated within creative expression, and creation by Black American artists is nestled at the center of Americana.
At the California African American Museum, an entire exhibit has been dedicated to artwork culled from the permanent collection and representative of Black American folk art: Dust My Broom: Southern Vernacular from the Permanent Collection serves as both time capsule and time machine, showcasing work across a broad spectrum of Black American folk artists rooted in the South. Largely self-taught and relying on a hodgepodge of materials that often include everyday items such as glass bottles, brooms, the artists on display at CAAM reflect “themes associated with spirituality, social justice, folklore, and daily life among common folk… mirror the ingenuity, creativity, and deep sense of community among African Americans.”
The Black American experience is unique. Despite the commonly used term ‘African American,’ it is not the African experience, we were stripped of that, had it beaten out of us on plantations, nor is it the mainstream — i.e. white — American experience. It is also not the immigrant experience: it is the experience of forced migrants, yes, but not immigrants who voluntarily searched for a better life or fled conflict, religious persecution, or other forms of unrest back home. The roots of Black Americans extend deeply into the heart of America, and by default, Americana, with Black American folk art of the Southern tradition giving an unfiltered glimpse into the history and culture of the United States.
Fabric art and mixed media pieces using found/discarded/every day materials are a testament to the ability, strength, and perseverance of Black Americans to create, to make something out of nothing. There is also historical significance of using every day items to convey a double meaning, such as quilts stitched with patterns that were actually hidden maps to freedom on the Underground Railroad. Many of the artworks in the exhibit display this emotional complexity bubbling underneath the surface of every day items and situations: Skillets in the Closet (1988), by David Hammons, features a wooden kitchen cupboard filled with hanging iron-cast skillets. Innocuous enough upon first glance — who hasn’t seen pots and pans hanging in a pantry? — the title references ‘skeletons in the closet,’ with the skillets themselves serving as allegories for Black folks (‘skillet’ was often used as a racial slur for Black people, due to our dark skin). Upon closer inspection, the wooden cabinet resembles a coffin, and the ‘skillets’ hanging inside represent a shameful American skeleton in the closet: lynchings. Such is the power of folk art, and the Southern vernacular in particular.
Works by the great Clementine Hunter are on display, the prolific folk artist who began painting in her late 50s and went on to create five to ten thousand pieces in her lifetime. Now known as extremely important renderings of Black life in rural Louisiana during the dawn of the 20th century, her paintings (many of them oil on canvas, bottles, jugs and whatever else she could get her hands on) and quilts recreate scenes from her memory, often depicting plantation life, nature, religious iconography, funerals, baptisms, child-minding, washing clothes, and picking cotton and pecans. Her use of bright, flat panels of color gave a surreal, abstract quality to every day events, and Hunter had a deliberate disregard for size and scale, intentionally making the often-overlooked lives of Black Americans larger-than-life to emphasize importance. In Melrose (1980s), Hunter depicts the ‘Big House’ of the Louisiana plantation she grew up on as the same size as the four other buildings where the workers — mainly descendants of the enslaved — lived, and in Pecan Pickers (1985), five Black workers almost as tall as the trees themselves shake out pecans and collect them in bright red buckets. As Southern plantations sent the American economy roaring to life in both antebellum and post-Civil War periods, Hunter’s works are, again, not just portraits of Black life, but of the lifeblood of America.
The recognition of the divine in the mundane is also a hallmark of Black folk art in the Southern tradition, as the South is rooted deeply in faith and ritual. My favorite work by far at Dust My Broom is Ancestral Praise House (1996), by Dominique Moody. Inspired by the Gullah Geechie culture, which grew out of freed Black American communities in the islands of the Carolinas after slavery. As the Gullah people were isolated on former island plantations, they developed very distinct cultural markers that were hugely influenced by the ocean, including waterfront houses for worship made out of wood.
Moody built her ‘praise house’ out of scavenged materials gathered during a road trip through South Carolina with her sister, where she visited Gullah communities to meet griots and artists, and witnessed firsthand the small wooden structures for prayer. Using seashells, rocks, sand and twigs from the seashore, along with stained-glass fragments from firebombed churches in nearby Georgia, Moody constructed a small house with an intergalactic pattern on all sides. A mosaic of crushed glass and shells formed a moon, stars, and deep blue night sky on one side, while the other featured a swirling spiral galaxy and two Black figures, one with their hands raised in worship. Salvaged mirrors were used to create a series of steps leading up to the house, with clear glass inserts and shells meant to represent the shoreline where the praise houses sit in Gullah Geechie communities. Pennies rest underneath the ‘water’ conjured up by the glass inserts, and evokes the memory of throwing coins into wells for wishes. The transformation of natural materials from the Gullah coastline along with those pulled from the wreckage of bombed Black churches (which was a common practice in the Jim Crow-era South to strike fear into the hearts of Black Americans) into a house of omnipresence, of faith, of the belief that we will survive and thrive, is profound.
Because, at its core, that’s what Black American folk art is. It is the expression of a vibrant and multifaceted American culture, one built brick by brick out of scavenged materials, out of varied experiences steeped in blood, sweat, and tears, but also love, hope, joy, faith, superstition, and tradition. It is the quintessential American experience. The ‘broom’ in question in the title, Dust My Broom? A symbol of union, as slaves were not allowed to legally marry, not being seen as actual persons or American citizens, and instead jumped a broom to show their bond. To this day, many Black American descendants of slaves still ‘jump the broom’ during their wedding ceremonies, a tradition to honor those that came before us. Dust it off. Keep it clean. And fly away.
Featured Image: Sam Doyle’s St. Helena’s Black Merry Go Rond (1980-83)
Collection of the California African American Museum. Gift of Gordon W. Bailey
Seren Sensei (@seren_sensei) is an activist, writer, cultural critic and new media maker. Focusing on finding the bonds between race, politics, and pop culture, she creates race-based video content and also released her first book, entitled So, About That… A Year of Contemporary Essays on Race and Pop Culture, in 2015. She was a 2016-2017 fellow for at land’s edge, an art and activism fellowship program in Los Angeles, and her work has been exhibited in the art space human resources la as well as the Vincent Price Art Museum.